Sunday, June 12, 2011

Ageless Jazz Icons for the Ages -- Brubeck and Wein.

Blessing to those who have spent their lives doing what they love. For most of those people, even that ends at some point, eventually relegating those activities to “the good old days.” But there are a fine few for whom it doesn’t end. ThosE people are inspiring.

Recent experiences in the jazz community brought to of those folks to the forefront. One is the renowned jazz impresario George Wein, the other the great American music legend Dave Brubeck. They are two long-time friends, but the paths that crossed mine recently are separate.

Wein invented the jazz festival in Newport, RI, in 1954 and 22 years later created a major jazz festival in Saratoga Springs, NY, that will see 34th edition on June 25 and 26. It’s Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival (It had different names over the first couple decades as sponsorships changed). And Wein returns there this year to get an award [click for YouTube video]--a star on the Walk of Fame of Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where the festival is annually held. He’ll also lead his Newport All Stars in a set on June 25, just after getting the award. (Randy Brecker, Anat Cohen , Lew Tabackin , Howard Alden , Lewis Nash and Peter Washington comprise the band).

That brought about another conversation between George and I recently. He continues to impress me. But it wasn’t the general gist of the talk. It’s the underlying theme. At age 85, Wein is playing piano and touring with the All Stars. And after giving up producing the Newport jazz festival for a couple years, a brief period during which its new caretakers fucked it up royally, Wein jumped back in, producing two great festivals there in ’09 and ’10. Not only that, he made the effort after last year to create a non-profit foundation that will carry on the festival after he’s gone.

That’s commitment. It’s pride. And it’s love of the music and its makers. Hs legacy will be that millions of people will enjoy jazz festivals into the future.

The thing is, Wein could have slipped away and made it easy on himself. History would have regarded him in no less esteem. He even deserves to lay back and take it easy. But he rejuvenated Newport when he didn’t have to. And he’s still trying to safeguard its stewardship for years to come.

[PHOTOS: Top, Dave Brubeck, with wife Iola, back stage at Newport, 2009; middle, George Wein plays with Christian McBride at the 2009 Newport Jazz festival; Brubeck plays with Tony Bennett, Newport 2009. Photos © R.J. DeLuke]

And he has a ball playing with his band. It’s not that many dates, but it’s fun. Again--he doesn’t have to. “I’m 85 years old, so I’m not breaking my neck doing anything,” he quipped. “I’m in pretty good shape. My health is OK. I hope it stays that way. I was just practicing. My hands are OK.“

Of his set at Saratoga (and the Montreal Jazz Festival the very next day), he noted “We don’t rehearse. They know what we’re going to play. They know what we’re going to do. We’re going to put together a show that will last a little more than an hour. And it will be perfect. That’s my joy.”

It also called to mind how, more than a decade ago, in my first conversation with him, Wein lamented that jazz “stars” were leaving and not being replaced by new ones, people who were box office. In more recent years, he’s changed. The old dog has new tricks. He goes out to clubs in Manhattan and checks out new things. He’s helped champion people like Esperanza Spalding and Anat Cohen. He’s brought people like Jason Moran, Dave Binney, Darcy James Argue, Ben Allison and others to his festival. He sees a crop of fine talent carries the day, even if there is no Miles or Trane--yet. (No one saw them coming, either. We never do)

Wein keeps doing what he loves to do and he does it right.

At the same time Brubeck, 90, walks the same path. He, too, could be resting on laurels. But his quartet still performs quality music and fans still go wild. Two summers ago Wein had him play with Tony Bennett at Newport. Last summer he did a guest spot with Wynton Marsalis.

On June 10, he came to Saratoga to sit in with a band called Triple Play, a trio which includes his son Chris. To see that show was inspiring. Dave can’t physically play like he used to. No one can do any physical task at the age of 90 that they could at 70, 60, 50, 40 … and playing an instrument is PHYSICAL. But I watched Brubeck uplift a room with his spirit, his joy, his willingness to be part of a group and make the music sound right for the people. He beamed like a child watching the others -- his son, Madcat Ruth, Joel brown and Frank Brown -- play and groove on some of his classic tunes. And he walked off the stage with a lot more bounce then he had before he started playing.

Music moves these two men. It’s a powerful thing in this world. And these two men have moved people for years.


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